Base of the Pyramid – An inspiring day at Delft

As my Walkabout progresses I’m getting more interested in emerging markets (i.e. Brazil, Russia, India and China referred to as the BRIC) where design is being used to meet the demands of the growing consumer culture. It was great to learn more about the use of design at the Base of the (economical) Pyramid from attending Beyond Design at Delft, The Netherlands 7th September 2012. Here is Delft’s description from the event of what BoP is (remembering that 7 billion people are living in the world today):

“Four billion people live on an income of US$ 8 a day or less, often referred to as the ‘Base of the (economical) Pyramid’ (BoP). This enormous part of the world population has been overlooked and underserved for a long time by, amongst others, industrial design schools and ‘for profit companies’. Since the publication of ‘Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’ in 2002 a big shift of interest and commitment can be observed. A range of companies and design schools started to get engaged in collaboration with NGOs, social entrepreneurs and local stakeholders to explore, develop and implement product (service) systems for the BoP.”

The event was held in honor of Prof. Prabhu Kandachar the key intellectual in this space, as he was about to retire he shared his learning and brought together an amazing range of speakers on the BoP subject from both design and business perspectives. Each speaker provided a truly engaging and amazing viewpoint on the subject, a summary is provided below:

Speaker 1 – Prof. Minna Halme


After a lovely introduction by Prof. Han Brezet, Research Director of faculty IDE, Delft University of Technology, and Prof. Prabhu Kandachar stressing the importance of the speaker, Prof. Minna Halme, professor of Corporate Responsibility at the Aalto University School of Economics in Finland, gave her keynote intro . She shared her learning about inclusive business alleviating poverty, and introduced WeCompany and its mission of ‘People Planet Profit’. Minna encouraged us see inclusive innovation in terms of BoP as ‘us’ not just ‘them’. Her 3 key lessons on inclusive innovation, if it is to scale successfully, were:

  • Look long-term at Return on Investment (ROI), as you will not gain in the short term; and find new methods of measuring
  • Support entrepreneurship, as providing products for the BoP market will only come with experimentation. (Minna commented that ‘When you are a novice you have to climb a lot of hills’.)
  • Recognise a new focus on collaboration, as you have to work with a range of new partners and stakeholders to deliver real value to the BoP market.

Minna has been working with lots of international partners on BoP projects in emerging markets. With this knowledge she formed WeCompany:

‘The WeConomy Start innovation programme takes Finnish companies to developing countries to solve social, economical and ecological challenges. Access to a four billion person market offers companies significant opportunities for international growth.’

The WeCompany programme starts in Jan 2013, so it will be interesting to explore what is ahead.  Minna left us with some important questions:

  • How do we understand poverty?
  • How do we address poverty?
  • Are we engaging with BoP to create wealth or distribution of property?

Prof. Minna Halme blogged her own reflections on the event here:

Speaker 2 – Rusam Sengupta

Rusam Sengupta, Founder and CEO of Boond, shared his insights into designing for the poor. He explained how he started out as a designer, but now uses design as an entrepreneur:

“Boond creates entrepreneurs who sell and service development products like solar lamps (and home systems), water filters, efficient cooking stoves, dynamo lamps and mosquito nets in remote rural areas or areas affected by calamities (floods etc.).”

He said that BoP had become a glamorous term, when really it is about creating sustainable models to provide value to these new markets. Rusam asked us these questions: ‘How do you talk about or understand the people at the base of the pyramid?’


Rusam introduced us to a family that he had met:  Shakti Singh and his family (Fevdugri, Rajasthan, India) are very happy, and not waiting for the people of the West to help them, but commented that their income is just different from ours. He asked us a couple of questions about the head of the family: What does he spend his money on? Is he going to buy a product? And if he buys the product, what will that be replacing in his income – what would he have spent that money on previously? Rusam said that designers need to look to what replaces that income.

Rusam also presented the key lessons that should influence how we design product and services for the BoP. This sector wants quality and practicality first – Rusam had trialled a couple of lights and found that some broke when turned upside down, which the users did as they had not used a light before – so keep it simple. If a product breaks down and needs to be serviced it’s a challenge in these remote locations. But it is also very much to do with aspiration – people living at the BoP still want to have a better life and look for products to help them achieve that. I think this comment is relevant to everything about how we design – it is about dreams. It is about trust: approaching the head men in communities out of respect, and building trust with them in order to then be able to talk with the women. Rusam empowers people to be local leaders, and be entrepreneurs.

Rusam shared the areas of the market that he was addressing in his work, with lighting being a big problem at the BoP in India. He also showed how his value chain so that his service could become faster, but the only problem was that the product was out there with the consumers and when it broke down it was costly to get back because of the owners’ remote locations.

I really admired Rusam’s entrepreneurial spirit and new insights about how to start understanding design in this context. I would advise watching his TED talk too – very inspiring:

Speaker 3 – Namrata Mehta 

Namrata Mehta from Center for Knowledge Societies (CKS), India talked about an innovation consultancy that not only designs product but also informs public policy. The CKS is:

“an innovation consulting practice that employs user-centered research and design methodologies, including ethnography, design analysis, and user experience, to help organizations systematically and routinely create products, services, and systems.”

They have produced many projects and reports on emerging markets and design that are well worth a look: One such project that Namrata presented was the design of a local airline, and how designing for extreme localisation may not work. She explained that when asking women and men in India if they normally sat in different parts of the bus and train; and whether they wanted to sit in different parts of the airplanes – they found out that extra leg room was all that the passengers really required. CKS also host different events to review the ‘Design Public’ which was about conversation, collaboration and partnership. In terms of the work they are doing, their presentation gave an impressive insight into the challenges of designing for the emerging market and I would very much advise you to look over their projects and reports.


Speaker 4 – Myrtille Danse

Myrtille Danse, Executive Director of the BoP Innovation Center, Utrecht, the Netherlands.

“The BoP Innovation Center enables the development of new business models, encompassing all areas of the supply chain from sourcing and production to new products and services sold on the market. We do this by developing sustainable innovations, capturing and sharing learnings and working to improve the enabling environment. This creates a win-win-win situation, wherein organizations and consumers all benefit, thus creating shared value.”

Again this was an amazing talk, with the key learning being that taking a top down or the bottom up approach will not work, the work has to be undertaken with all of the stakeholders working together.


Prof. Prabhu Kandachar

In his address, Prabhu shared his thoughts about where design and innovation ought to be going in order to help as many people as possible around the world, including the underserved in developing countries and emerging markets, to move towards global sustainability and wellbeing for all. I think it’s best that I don’t try to summarise his amazing talk – but that you read it for yourself by clicking here. While reading it remember that BoP is not only about business, but that design plays an important role – especially as we need real results in the world to meet the needs of tomorrow.


For me the key message from the event was about moving from design, to design making business sense with well-being in mind – and that function and aspiration are important when designing for the BoP market. With this in mind I find myself more and more interested in economics.  Also I learned a new term from the event: ‘Next element countries’, or ‘Second emerging markets’ which means Asia or Latin America, with Indonesia, South Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, Turkey and Argentina included too. This could be a new area to explore more, as these are places with even more creativity as they don’t have the pressure to grow that BoP countries face.

We only have a short timeframe in which to learn before these markets become fully developed, and the middle classes begin to emerge.  But also I am keen to understand how developed markets learn from these emerging markets, or how they can learn together. With all these questions in my mind: next stop is India! Let’s see if I can find some answers.

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